Ghost of Tsushima, which Sucker Punch is releasing Friday, is the last major game exclusive to the PlayStation 4 before Sony Interactive Entertainment rolls out the PlayStation 5 this holiday season.
In this game, you take control of Jin Sakai, a samurai who is trying to defend his home island against a Mongol invasion. It's actually based on the real-life invasion of the Japanese island of Tsushima by the Mongols in 1274, which is a cool starting point for history nerds like me.
The game might also appeal to fans of classic cinema because of the ability to play in "Kurosawa" mode, a black-and-white filter that will make you feel like you're playing inside of a 1950s film by the acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, whose samurai films partly inspired this game. You might not want to play the entire game this way, but it's cool to try it out at times, especially when you're dueling with another samurai. There's even a Japanese dialogue option if you really want to immerse yourself in the world of feudal Japan.
These are just a couple of the cool features of this open-world game that I had a chance to play over the past couple of weeks. Here are some of my takeaways.
Let nature be your guide
One of the unique aspects of this open-world game is the lack of a mini map to guide you as you're playing. Instead, you have to rely on the "guiding wind" to lead you. After tracking a location on the map that you access through the game menu, the wind will blow in that direction. You can mark locations for missions (called tales in this game) as well as villages, shrines, hot springs and other locations of interest. If you happen to lose your way and don't want to refer to the map, simply swipe up on your controller and a strong gust of wind will point the right way to go. It's really a neat mechanism for making your way through this vast open world.
Besides the wind, you'll often encounter golden birds that you can follow to locations that will lead you to characters who can unlock new tales and other useful locations for ability upgrades such as bamboo strikes, gift altars, shrines and more. Following a fox can lead you to a specific type of shrine called an Inari shrine. These can be tricky to reach, but getting to them will allow you to unlock charm slots to power up your weapons.
These are just some of the ways in which Sucker Punch has endeavored to make the game as immersive as you want it to be. You can play the game in "expert" mode (not to be confused with one of the three levels of difficulty for the game) in which the heads-up display is minimized on screen. There are no waypoints in this mode, and collectible items such as bamboo, yew wood, flowers and other supplies aren't highlighted to indicate you should approach and pick them up. Instead you'll have to rely on your instincts and knowledge of the game. Your health bar doesn't show while in combat in this mode, either. I found it fun to turn on expert mode every now and then after getting used to the game and then seeing how I'd fare in locating items and locations.
Wind enhances already beautiful landscapes
The wind doesn't just blow to act as a guide; it also helps create a very distinctive look for the game. Depending on your surroundings, whenever the wind gusts it might swirl around colorful leaves from nearby trees, make waves across vast fields of pampas grass or blow up snowflakes, or embers from structures that are on fire. It breathes life into an already gorgeously landscaped island and gives it an ethereal look.
It's a very colorful world, too. In one part of the map, you might be riding your horse amid a field of white, feathery pampas grass, while in another area you're walking toward a temple surrounded by golden-leafed trees or traveling through a forest full of red-hued maples. The entire world is beautifully crafted -- not just the landscapes but the samurai armor and sword kits too. Heck, even the Mongols' outfits and weaponry are cool to look at.
Ghost of Tsushima definitely emphasizes stealth. It's to your advantage to sneak up on your enemies and silently take out as many Mongols as you can before openly engaging someone and drawing out more foes. Not only can you sneak around through tall grass, under buildings and on rooftops, but you'll eventually unlock skills and items that will enable your stealth such as smoke bombs, distracting firecrackers and poison darts.
I'm terrible at being stealthy in games, but trust me, it really pays off to be patient in this game. In fact, there are some missions that can only be completed by being stealthy; if you get spotted in a Mongol camp, an alarm gets raised, and you need to start over.
Combat is fun and satisfying
Of course, despite emphasizing stealth, the combat in this game is really enjoyable, and using a perfect parry or one of the more advanced combos to finish off an enemy is such a rush.
There are a few different types of Mongols you'll encounter -- some with swords, some with shields, some with spears and some who are just known as brutes -- and you'll need to use different techniques to beat each one. There's also archers. Pro tip: Taking them out first will make your life easier. You'll earn technique points for completing missions that you can then use to upgrade your skills. There's also a very special advantage that you'll earn after defeating several enemies in a row without taking damage -- but I won't spoil that surprise.
Boss battles take the form of duels. You can't use any of your items to damage your opponent in these. It's all about how good you are with your katana. Parrying is a lot more important in boss battles than it is in regular combat. Not only will it save you from heavy damage, but it'll earn you "resolve," which can then be used to replenish some of your health.
Make sure your outfit and sword kit are upgraded and you're filling the charm slots on your katana so you're ready for duels. You can mix and match your outfits and headgear and masks, but it's only your outfit that confers specific advantages in battle.
History buffs, rejoice!
I was super excited when I heard that this game was based on an actual historical event: the Mongol invasion of Tsushima in 1274. The Mongols actually invaded the Japanese island of Tsushima, which lies between the Korean Peninsula and the rest of Japan, as a precursor to launching an invasion of the Japanese mainland. I was a history major in college and am very interested in the subject in general, so playing the game was cool in that regard.
Khotun Khan, who leads the Mongol invasion of Tsushima in the game, is fictional, but he says he's related to two actual historical Mongol Khans who you've probably heard of: Ghengis Khan and Kublai Khan. Although the island of Tsushima that's portrayed in the game is not an identical recreation of the real island, based on a recent PlayStation blog post on the game, it seems the developers took great care in recreating real elements from the island in the game. In fact, Sucker Punch even consulted with real samurai to inform the authenticity of the game. Playing the game made me want to learn more about feudal Japan and samurai.
A question of honor
Honor is a central tenet of the game. Being a samurai means fighting with honor. That means fighting your opponent head-on and not relying on sneaky tactics.
However, once the Mongols invade, Jin realizes that might not be the best way to beat them, and that becoming "the Ghost" requires doing dishonorable things. While being stealthy might be the best way to fight back the invaders, it'll ruffle some feathers with Jin's uncle, Lord Shimura. Shimura tells Jin that "terror is not the weapon of a samurai" at one point and that "only cowards strike from the shadows" in another instance. It's the main point of tension throughout the game besides the conflict with the Mongols.
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Although progression through the game favors acting with stealth and trickery, it doesn't mean you can't be honorable at times.
Every time you encounter a group of Mongols, you have the option of doing the honorable thing in declaring your presence and confronting one of them in a standoff. It's a mini duel, essentially, and if you time your first move just right, it's a one-strike kill against your opponent. When you're engaged in combat, sometimes you won't quite kill an opponent, but he'll be badly beaten, and you'll have the option to do the honorable thing and finish him off. Doing this is another way to earn some resolve to replenish your health.
Overall, I really enjoyed playing this game. The main mission, Jin's tale, reminded me a bit of Horizon Zero Dawn in terms of gathering allies for a final fight, but it wasn't as long as I expected for an open-world game. It's not as lengthy of a playthrough as games like Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher 3. However, although Ghost of Tsushima's main track felt a little bit short, it never dragged, and the plethora of side missions and mini games will certainly give you plenty of other things to occupy your time during and after you finish Jin's tale.
I'm still letting the wind guide me as I work through more side missions and uncover more locations. I don't always try to finish games to 100% completion, but this is one I'm striving to fully explore.